The stories of a couchsurfer

Aix-en-Provence: More than a neighbour

Europe fascinates because of it’s urban density. It’s not so much a population density – even the larger cities here don’t get into the same level as the Asian cities or even the large high-rise driven North American cities – but the fact that there seems to be some sort of population or urban area not far away from the previous.

This comes as a complete contrast to what has been experienced in Australia where departing a town or city generally means a few hundred kilometres before arriving at the next one.

In Europe, civilisation is always not far away as you barely leave a town before arriving in the next one. Usually, this manifests itself in the form of small villages dotted along the route to the next destination but from time to time you will find situations where two rather large cities are essentially neighbours to one another.

So far I haven’t really experienced a pairing like this (with the exception of megalopolises like Paris) until I hit Aix-en-Provence. More commonly referred to as simply Aix (there are many Aix-en… towns in France but the primary one is that situated in the province of Provence), this mid-sized city is only thirty kilometres to the north of France’s second largest city of Marseille.

This would be the first time that I have ever encountered such a proximity between two distinct, large cities, albeit that Aix is much smaller than Marseille. Although clearly distinct from one another, they do coexist and behave as if they are the same town. They share the Université de Provence Aix-Marseille. They share an urban train and bus network that frequently travels between one another. It’s not uncommon to meet people living in Aix that work or study in Marseille, and vice-versa.

Despite this, Aix very much has it’s own identity and is proud of it’s independence, somewhat ensuring that it distances itself from being under the shadow of it’s larger neighbour.

Or, at least it tries to.

Largely, it succeeds. But not completely. It’s hard to convince the government to aid the construction of a large sports facility if there’s already one a fifteen minute train ride away. It’s just as difficult to entice tourists to stay in a hotel in Aix when they can be at the centre of the action in Marseille and take one of the frequent buses to Aix for a day trip. There are some things that Marseille has already laid claim to and Aix simply can’t compete with and perhaps this is a case of the smaller sibling syndrome that only gets the hand-me-downs and second bests.

It could be a lot worse though, and Aix has done a good job at promoting it’s own identity and history. Not that there is a great deal of it. The town is actually a lot smaller than I had originally envisioned, with a population of around one hundred and fifty thousand.

This means that it’s area is quite small, and it’s easy to explore it over the course of a few days. As with most French cities, the centre is the old town and its small in area but has some beautiful architecture and squares to amuse yourself in. This is nothing out of the ordinary though, and there’s never really the impression of being blown away by something you haven’t seen before.

The churches exist, but they are modest and small in comparison to the larger towns. The parks exist, but they don’t contain any spectacular lakes or activities. Everything here is on a smaller, more modest scale.

But it would be unnecessary if they weren’t. Aix is simply a smaller town and for it to try and overcompensate would be outright pretentious. There’s a level of respect that Aix commands itself for it’s decision not to try and compete with it’s larger counterparts.

The city does have plenty of upsides to it. Whereas Marseille is regarded as being dirty and having a rough edge to it, Aix-en-Provence has almost the opposite reputation. It’s here that the more wealthy live and the streets are clean and safer. This is certainly true, and it can be felt as you walk around town.

It’s also a lot greener with trees and leaves lining the pavement and there’s a certain feel of class to the city. Venture outside of the old inner city and you will see green suburbs of houses instead of apartments and this is a rare sight indeed in France.

Certain people (specifically, the French) will tell you that this is a good thing but attracts the wrong people. The class brings the wealthy and therefore more snobbish populations to the town and they are not as open and accepting to bar like social environments.

Indeed, there aren’t that many bars and not a great deal of nightlife exists at all in Aix. The few that were there weren’t very busy during the times that I was there and I could only put this down to the fact, again, that any people such inclined would instead travel to Marseille for that scene.

What Aix-en-Provence may of lacked in bars it made up for restaurants. Of course, if it didn’t have it’s fair share of restaurants it would be French sacrilege but here in Aix there are a great deal of well publicised and commercial restaurants that charge a pretty penny with also loads of hidden gems down side streets in the old town that are a more moderate cost but maintain that famous French quality.

Aix-en-Provence appears as if it’s a rich hideaway for those who want to escape the mad rush and hectic pace of Marseille but still want to profit off of it’s commercial possibilities.

Yet, through it all, I never experienced that talked about snobishness from the locals here. At least, the people in retail and hospitality were friendly enough, but I didn’t really get a good enough chance to talk to the locals themselves to find out.

There are advantages and disadvantages to having two clearly distinct cities so close to each other. Ultimately though, the main advantage is for the people and the choice that it provides to them.

The choice between Aix-en-Provence and Marseille may not be as clear cut as you think.

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